Special to the Langley Advance
They aren’t each other’s mirror image, but the No. 1-ranked Walnut Grove Gators and the No. 4-ranked, defending B.C. champion Kelowna Owls are similar enough that they remind you of a pair of roughhousing brothers who are always up for a battle.
And on Saturday, a so-called rivalry of superstar siblings continued in the championship final of the Tsumura Basketball Invitational at the Langley Events Centre.
After a virtual first-half standoff, however, Langley’s Gators revealed themselves to be the big brothers, and within a span of just 47 seconds early in the second half, put together a 7-0 run that seemed to break Kelowna’s back and send Walnut Grove to an 83-62 title-game win.
Deadlocked 17-17 after the first quarter, it took a small run just before halftime for Walnut Grove to carry a 34-28 lead into the halftime locker.
But seven minutes into the third, a three-pointer by point guard Ty Rowell and then back-to-back baskets by Grade 11 off-guard James Wood turned the tide. Quite suddenly, the Gators were ahead by 19 points at 59-40 and looking pretty unbeatable.
“I was expecting us to be successful in the second half and so were our players,” said Walnut Grove head coach George Bergen, whose team has now won two back-to-back tournaments this season. “And the pressure we put on ourselves, the expectations we have, are our own.”
And therein lies the difference between the two teams. Walnut Grove, with it’s all-senior front court of Brett Christensen, Andrew Goertzen and Jake Cowley, are about as imposing a trio as has been seen in recent provincial history, and Rowell, the tourney MVP, has a work ethic that is off the charts.
Kelowna, 23-0 against B.C. competition last season en route to the B.C. quad-A title, has returned just two main rotation players, but no full-time starters from last season’s team.
But that doesn’t mean little brother is conceding anything.
“They have started more quad-A games than we have and they have been there before,” said Kelowna head coach Harry Parmar. “So they have a cohesion we don’t yet. We see it, but it’s late. We’re reacting and not anticipating and when we start to anticipate great things can happen.”
One of the great things about watching Saturday’s final was the one-on-one point guard match up between Rowell and Kelowna’s Mason Bourcier, the senior who started a number of games last season, but has improved so rapidly from last season that he is easily one of the top players in the province.
“I think they are the two best guards in the entire province and this was a treat to watch tonight,” said Bergen. “Ty is in the gym every morning and every evening, and it’s all about the countless hours. I am sure Bourcier has done the same.”
The two not only guarded each other, but each scored a game-high 21 points.
Last season, Kelowna took on the enormous pressure of pre-season No. 1 and carried it wire-to-wire en route to winning the title and cutting down the nets at the LEC last March.
Now, here comes Walnut Grove, off to an 8-0 start against an elite field of ranked teams, facing the same pressure of being No. 1, potentially from start to end.
Rowell doesn’t mind it, in fact he welcomes it. “It’s good to be No. 1 and have that pressure,” he said, “and personally I like that it puts pressure on us to perform because I feel we can live up to it.”
How much can the Gators improve within that pressure? How much better can the Owls get? These are questions to ponder over the next few months, questions which will be answered when the calendar turns to March.
On a snowy Saturday in early December, however, it was fun to watch a pair of basketball brothers roughhousing for initial bragging rights.
This week, the Tsumura Basketball Invitational’s girls tournament runs Thursday through Saturday at the Langley Events Centre.
– Howard Tsumura is a reporter with The Province